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Fairyland Park kept black Kansas citizens out. A world premiere play tells their story

Playwright Michelle Tyrene Johnson calls “Just One Day a Year,” world-premiering this week at The Coterie, a “hometown story of a hometown girl.” But she says she also carries a universal message.

“It’s a Kansas City comedy, where the references are things that anyone from Kansas City, or at least older people, will understand,” Johnson said. “But because of the nature of the show and what it’s about, it could be in any city in America.”

The drama tells two stories in tandem, following the fictional Rose James as a teenager during the real 1960s segregated days in Fairyland Park and decades later when her granddaughter, Ella, is dealing with a controversy at her school.

“I’m so excited, because it’s so important for people not to go to sleep over their story,” Johnson said.

The Coterie, consistently regarded as one of the best theaters in the nation for young audiences, commissioned the play. It is co-directed by Sidonie Garrett, executive artistic director of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, and Teresa Leggard, who is also one of the seven cast members.

Leggard said some of his castmates come from families with long histories in Kansas City and with memories of Fairyland, which once stood at 75th Street and Prospect Avenue.

“One of the most gratifying things was when cast members talked about the show with their families at home,” she said. “Then they come to the rehearsal and share these revelations: memories, personal stories and family stories about Fairyland.

“It reminds us that what we call history was not that long ago at all. I hope audiences will have the same kind of conversations at home after the show.

Michelle Tyrene Johnson, a fourth-generation Kansas City, Kansan, wrote “Only One Day a Year,” which airs January 31-March 5 at The Coterie.

‘A piece of history’

Johnson, a fourth-generation Kansas City, Kansan, attended St. Teresa’s Academy and received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a law degree from the University of Missouri. Now a producer at a public radio station in Louisville, Kentucky (she previously worked at KCUR in Kansas City), she has written three books and too many plays to count.

His plays have been produced coast to coast, including locally at the KC Melting Pot Theater and the Olathe Civic Theater Association, with readings at the Unicorn Theater and the Kansas City Repertory Theater.

He drew from personal experience for “Only One Day a Year,” which refers to an old Fairyland policy that only allowed black people into the amusement park on one specific day a year. When she was a child, her mother refused to take her to Fairyland because of that previous segregation.

After years of protests and lawsuits, Fairyland was opened to blacks in 1964. That same year, Kansas City voters passed a referendum desegregating public facilities, and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law.

U.S. Representative Emanuel Cleaver, former Mayor of Kansas City, said in a statement, “I applaud The Coterie for producing ‘Only One Day a Year,’ as it could inspire younger and even unborn Kansas citizens to build rather than fail race relations now and later.”

Playwright Johnson says the play is “serious but not heavy”.

“Discrimination is always heavy, but how I handle it is how I handle most of the things I write about,” she said. “It’s heavy combined with, I don’t mean humorous, but accessible.

“I look at my fiction writing like a Trojan horse. You pay the ticket to have fun. … So, booya, what jumps out of the Trojan horse. A point. A perspective. A piece of history. Lose some knowledge.

Calling the play “a drama with some metaphysical elements”, Johnson said “Only One Day a Year” is fictional. The narrative alternates between the young Rose, who struggles with the segregation of Fairyland, and the adult Rose, who collaborates with her nephew to shed light on an injustice of hers in her school.

La Coterie bills “Only one day a year” as appropriate for ages 9 and up. “It’s not a little kid’s game, but it’s a young adult,” Johnson said. “I think older kids will like it.”

“Just One Day a Year” received a $30,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. It was also one of six plays shortlisted for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ New Visions/New Voices in 2020, which included a scheduled reading at the biennial New Visions/New Voices festival in Washington, DC. out, as well as the September 2020 show’s original world premiere at The Coterie.

Meanwhile, Garrett and Leggard have taken over as co-directors.

Sidonie Garrett, executive artistic director of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, is co-directing “One Day a Year” with Teresa Leggard, who is also in the cast.

“It’s been put off so long because of COVID, it’s frustrating,” Garrett said. “But we’re back.”

Garrett, who will direct “The Tempest” at the Heart of America Festival in June at Southmoreland Park, has worked with Johnson on other shows. He says they’ve developed a “mutual trust,” which is important in telling this story of a black family.

“We’re feeling…their pain, their frustration, their anger, all of it,” Garrett said. “We will see it expressed and I think it is important.”

(This will be the first show to open at The Coterie since the death of Jeff Church, the theater’s longtime artistic director and producer who died by suicide in December after being accused of sexually abusing young men for years.)

The cast of “Just One Day a Year,” from left: Dominique Lorae (teenage Rose James), Sherri Roulette-Mosley (adult Rose), Patrick McGee Jr. (Frank James), Frank Dodson (August Butler ), L. Roi Hawkins (Bernard James/Principal Hanna), Daphany Edwards (Ella Wilson) and co-director Teresa Leggard (Oletha Smithfield).

See “Only one day a year”

‘Only One Day a Year’ at The Coterie Theater in the Crown Center will begin with daytime previews January 31 – February 31. 3, with the official opening at 19:00 on 3 February. The show will run until March 5. Tickets ($12-$15) are available at thecoterie.org.

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